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Allison could feel her heart pounding. Her lungs burned as shefought for air. The treadmill's digital display told her she waspassing the two-mile mark. She punched the speed button to slow thepace and catch her breath. Perspiration soaked her, pasting thenylon sweat pants and extra-large T-shirt to her trimforty-eight-year-old body. It was her favorite T-shirt, white withbright red and blue lettering."Careful, Allison. You're dealing with a military mentality. Howewouldn't invite you to debate unless he were thinking ambush. Beforewe agree to anything, we need to have a very clear understanding ofwhat he's proposing."
It read, "Leahy for President--A New Millennium."
After nearly four years as the United States attorney general,Allison was just fifteen days away from the historic date on whichvoters would decide whether the nation's "top cop" would become itsfirst woman president. The race was wide-open and without anincumbent, as her boss--Democratic President Charlie Sires--was atthe end of his second and final four-year term. Allison was hissecond-term attorney general, part of the president's shake-up ofhis own cabinet upon reelection in 1996. Eight months ago, Allisondidn't consider herself a serious presidential contender. But whenthe Republicans nominated Lincoln Howe, the nation's most belovedblack man, the polls made it clear that the only Democrat who couldbeat him was a charismatic white woman.
Ironically, thirty minutes of walking in place on the treadmill hadactually put Allison thirty miles closer to her afternoon rally inPhiladelphia. She was on the last leg of a two-day bus tour throughPennsylvania, a critical swing state with twenty-four electoralcollege votes. Her campaign bus had logged nearly ten thousand milesin the past six months. Now more than ever, it was showing the signsof a well-oiled political machine in the homestretch--which to theaverage organized human being looked remarkably like utter chaos. Adozen noisy staffers were busy at the fax machines and computerterminals. A scattered collection of bulging archive boxes blockedthe bathroom entrance, as if strategically placed to trip up anyonedesperate enough to use the on-board facilities. Thousands ofcampaign buttons, leaflets, and bumper stickers cluttered the rearstorage area. Four small color television sets were suspended fromthe ceiling, each blaring a different broadcast for simultaneousmulti-network viewing. One set was electronically "padlocked,"permanently tuned to CNN's virtually continuous coverage of Campaign2000.
"That's about enough self-flagellation for one day," said Allison,groaning. She hit the stop button and stepped down from thetreadmill.
Walking had been her chief source of exercise since the beginning ofthe New Hampshire Democratic primary in January. Whatever the town,she'd walk up and down Main Street, and people would join in andwalk along with her. It provided great photo ops early in theprimary, but after she won the Democratic nomination in August thecrowds grew so large that she needed a parade permit. In the lastweek, time constraints and cold Appalachian rains had forced her toconfine her walking to the treadmill during bus-ride debriefingsfrom her campaign strategist, David Wilcox.
"What else, David?" she said as she leaned over and stretched hercalf muscles.
Wilcox was a tall and wiry fifty-one-year-old graduate of theWoodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton. He had shoneas a young White House Fellow under President Carter, but a bitterloss in a personal bid for Congress in 1982 convinced him he'drather not be a candidate. In high school he was voted most likelyto become a game show host, and he'd finally found his niche as apolitical strategist. Over seventeen years his list of satisfiedclients included nine United States senators, seven congressmen, andfive governors, and he'd masterminded Allison's upset victory over asitting vice president in the Democratic primaries. In the last fewweeks, however, he'd grown concerned about the growing influence ofoutside consultants, so he'd decided to glue himself to Allison'sside for the bus tour. At the moment, he was reviewing hischecklist, seemingly oblivious to Allison's sweaty exercise attireor to the blurred Pennsylvania countryside in the window behindher.
"The drug problem has reared its ugly head." He had an ominous voicefor a thin man, part of an overall seriousness that was moresuitable for a White House state dinner than the frenetic campaigntrail. "I think our distinguished opposition is turning desperate.They're finally trying to make something out of your treatment fordepression, back in ninety-two."
"That was eight years ago. Politically speaking, it's ancienthistory."
"They're saying you took Prozac."
"I told you I was in counseling."
"Are you splitting hairs on me?"
She flashed a sobering look. "My four-month-old daughter was takenright out of her crib, right from my own house. Yes, I wasdepressed. I was in group counseling. Eight of us. Parents who'dlost children. No, I didn't take Prozac. But if you ask the othermembers of my support group, they'll probably say I needed it. Sodon't expect me to apologize for having reached out for a littlesupport. And don't sit there and act like this is news to you,either. I laid out all the skeletons the day I hiredyou."
He grimaced, thinking it through. "I just wish we could put thewhole episode in more of a context."
Her look became a glare. "I won't make Emily's abduction part ofthis campaign, if that's what you mean."
"Allison, we can't just say you were depressed and leave it at that.We need a positive spin."
"Okay," she said sarcastically, "how about this? Depression is agood thing. It's what stimulates ideas. Every invention, everyaccomplishment stems from depression, not euphoria. Nobody eversaid, 'Life's swell, let's invent fire.' It was the malcontent inthe back of the cave who finally stood up and said, 'Hey, I'mfreezing my ass off in here!' You want something to get done inWashington? By all means, elect the clinicallydepressed."
He was deadpan. "Please don't repeat that publicly. Or I'll be verydepressed."
"Good," she said with a smirk. "We could use some new ideas aroundhere." She took a deep breath. Wilcox didn't look amused, but sheknew he wouldn't push it. Throughout the campaign she'd nipped everymention of the abduction with some brusque remark--sometimespointed, sometimes flip--which immediately moved the agenda to lesspersonal territory. "Anything else?" she asked.
"I hate to keep harping on this, but General Howe's wife has beenstumping hard for him lately. Our polls show she's making inroads. Alot of voters--male and female, Democrat and Republican--arenostalgic about having a First Lady in the White House. We can'tcounteract those warm fuzzies unless we define the role of a FirstHusband. The election is two weeks away, and forty percent of thepublic still has no opinion on Peter Tunnello."
"Sorry, but the CEO of a publicly traded company can't duck out of astockholders meeting for a rubber chicken luncheon at theVFW."
"That's kind of my point. I think he would, if you askedhim."
"How do you know I haven't asked?"
"Your attitude, that's how. It started right after the convention,when Howe's camp floated those ugly rumors that you married Peterjust to bankroll your political ambition. Ever since then, you'vebeen on a one-woman crusade to shake more hands and raise more moneythan anybody in history. Don't get me wrong. The money's great. Butthe more you adopt this go-it-alone persona, the more you fuelsuspicions about your marriage."
"This is not a buy-one, get-two presidency. My marriage is mybusiness."
"It would still be nice if the American people could see you twotogether sometimes, especially as we get closer to election day.Just a few strategic public displays of affection, like Nancy andRon Reagan."
"News flash!" shouted one of her aides. He pitched his cellularphone onto the seat beside him and spun around, facing Allison."Howe's about to launch something in New Jersey. Check outCNN."
Allison moved closer to the main set. Her aides watched intently,straining to hear over the rumble of the bus's diesel engine. Wilcoxraised the volume. General Howe was near the end of a short speechbefore the National Convention of the American Legion in AtlanticCity.
On screen, a handsome African-American man stood tall behind achest-high podium, facing an enthusiastic crowd. The American flaghung limply on the yellow wall of painted cinder block. A blue andwhite banner hung from the rafters, proclaiming the campaign slogan,"Lincoln Howe--Lincoln Now!" The house was packed, and the mostenthusiastic supporters were strategically standing in the aisles tomake the turnout seem even better than it was.
General Howe was an imposing figure, even when wearing a simplebusiness suit and VFW cap. Army regulations prohibited him fromwearing his uniform after his retirement, but the larger-than-lifephotograph in the background reminded voters of his distinguishedforty-year career. It was a photo fit for history books: thetriumphant general inspecting his troops, dressed in riding boots,bloused green trousers, and short-waisted jacket. His chest wasdecorated with an array of medals, including a Medal of Honor. Eachshoulder bore four silver stars, indicating his rank. To his rightwas a photograph of Howe in another uniform, old number twenty-two,carrying a football for Army. He was a Heisman Trophy-winningrunning back in 1961. The best player in college football had givenup a promising career as professional athlete to serve hiscountry.
"The thing I remember most about my combat experience in Vietnam,"he said in a commanding voice, "is the eerie feeling of fighting aninvisible enemy. As we marched through the thick tropical jungle ofthe A Shau Valley, gunfire would quickly erupt, men would fall--andthen all was quiet. The enemy was nowhere to be seen.
"This presidential campaign has been strangely reminiscent of thatexperience. Marching along the campaign trail, I get machine-gunnedout of nowhere with a barrage of clever sound bites created by myDemocratic opponent's high-paid advisers. When it comes time tostand and fight, however, Ms. Leahy is nowhere to befound."
A combination of light laughter and applause rolled across theauditorium.
General Howe flashed a serious expression straight into the camera,his voice growing louder. "The American people deserve better thanthat. So today I issue this challenge. Come out from your hidingplace in the Washington jungle, Ms. Leahy. Debate me on the issues,one on one!"
The crowd cheered, but the general kept talking.
"I'm not talking about another round of sickeningly sweetquestion-and-answer sessions, like those so-called debates we heldearlier this month. No more use of a single moderator who wouldsooner pick up a rattlesnake than ask a potentially embarrassingquestion. Forget the town-hall format, where the tough questions mayor may not be asked. Let's have a panel of four independent experts.You pick two, I pick two. Let them ask the questions the Americanpeople are asking. And let us answer them!"
The crowd erupted into louder cheers. Balloons fell from theceiling. Supporters clapped their hands and waved their red and bluecardboard signs, chanting, "We want Lincoln! We wantLincoln!"
The television coverage quickly shifted back to a stiff and seriousanchorman fingering the small audio piece into his ear. "Joining menow from Washington is CNN political analyst Nick Beaugard. Nick,why does this challenge come now?"
The screen flashed a head-and-shoulders shot of a silver-hairedreporter before a mock-up of the White House. "If you believeGeneral Howe's campaign staff, they've been trying to persuade thenonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates to approve anotherdebate ever since the first round failed to produce a clear winner.But the real urgency for the Howe campaign stems from the painfulreality of recent trends in public opinion polls. For the eightweeks following the August conventions, General Howe ran neck andneck with Attorney General Leahy. That's not surprising, sincethey're both moderates and, apart from the question of militaryspending, their stand on the issues is quite similar. ConservativeRepublicans have recently dubbed the general 'Lincoln Center,' anunflattering play on the native New Yorker's middle-of-the-roadpolitics.
"In the past nine days we've seen a dramatic shift. The major pollsshow that an increasing number of previously undecided voters arenow leaning toward Leahy. Today's CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showsLeahy up by a whopping six points. A clear victory over Ms. Leahy ina no-holds-barred debate may be General Howe's only hope. Otherwise,when faced with the choice between a black man and a white woman onNovember seventh, the American people may well elect their firstwoman president."
The anchorman furrowed his brow inquisitively. "Has there been anyresponse yet from the Leahy campaign?"
"None yet," said the correspondent. "Some say the attorney generalis content to sit on her lead. But there are also reports of concernwithin the Leahy camp as to how their candidate would fare in adebate against General Howe in a format where, essentially, anythinggoes."
"All right, thank you. In other news today--"
Allison hit the mute button on her remote control. Her expressionhad fallen. "I'm already being cast as the chicken. We can't goanother minute with no response to a challenge likethat."
"Let's not be knee-jerk," said Wilcox. "We need to check things out,make sure it's the right thing to do."
"Of course it's the right thing. He's proposing a format thatactually forces the candidates to think on their feet. If theprevious debates showed anything about his speaking abilities,General Howe has more of the old college football jock in him thanthe commanding general."
"Work out the details later," she said with a wave of her hand. "Setup a press conference before the rally in Philly. I want to makesure we air my response in time for the six o'clock news." Her mouthcurled into a confident, almost imperceptible smile. "I'd love agood old-fashioned debate with Lincoln Howe. Anytime. Anyplace. Ofcourse I'm accepting the challenge."